The Boston Symphony Orchestra should invite the Boston University Symphonic Chorus to perform with them and give the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC) some time off. TFC might sound better after they reworks/refine their rough-sounding, non-smooth-sounding, fluttering (and shrill) soprano section, no? Why have an “Official Chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra,” when they are inferior to the Symphonic Chorus at Boston University?
Hola. ¿Qué tal? This article is about two Orchestra Choruses in Boston: The Boston University Symphonic Chorus and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, as well as some general choral information, and my experiences that some people might find interesting (all 2 or 3 of you). It’s a lengthy article, in part, because I’m critical of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and I give examples of why. Well you can’t fairly criticise someone without giving legitimate reasons why.
I and mi amigo have been watching two video performances from Boston’s Symphony Hall with the Boston University Symphony Orchestra (David Hooser, conductor) and Symphonic Chorus (Dra Ann Howard Jones and Scott Jarrett, Chorus Directors.) One video (below) is a performance of the choral symphony,The Bells, by Sergei Rachmaninov (in Русский/Russian: Сергей Васильевич Рахманинов/Колокола), and the other work is the oratorio Elijah by Felix Mendelssohn (in Deutsch: Elias). We enjoyed both performances. I think the Symphonic Chorus was better for the Rachmaninov. It was also a larger Chorus, and some of the same choristers were in both performances.
Dra Ann Howard Jones, Director of Choral Activities at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts School of Music, was recommended to BU by Robert Shaw. She worked closely with Shaw in Atlanta and was assistant conductor of the superb Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus (one of my favourites) for fifteen years. Dra Jones is unfortunately having health problems so Interim Director of Choral Activities at BU, Scott Jarrett, has been preparing the Symphonic Chorus and conducting some performances in her absence.
We very much enjoyed the excellent BU Symphonic Chorus. Because of their overall young age they remind me of the superb University of Maryland Chorus (from my past) which performed regularly in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with the National Symphony Orchestra. The Maryland Chorus had quite the legacy under conductor Antal Doráti. They also had engagements with many other national and international orchestras. Like the University of Maryland Chorus—which was considered a “town and gown” Chorus (meaning membership was open to the town of College Park Maryland/the public and UMD students upon audition)—the Boston University Symphonic Chorus is an auditioned ensemble open to BU students, faculty, staff and friends, according to BU’s website.
Boston University has an outstanding Symphony Orchestra. I’ve never heard such an excellent student Symphony Orchestra and they are very interesting to watch. They have a beautifully smooth string section and with the skilled camera work in these videos one gets to see the perfectly synchronised bowing of the violins, for example, and we noticed that some of the page turns were perfectly synchronsised such as at 5.13 in the video. One of the orchestral members, Ceylon Mitchell (piccolo) uploaded the Rachmaninov video on
YouGoogleTube and you’ll see Ceylon playing at approximately 18.49 into the Rachmaninov video. Muchísimas gracias/thank you very much to Ceylon for the video of the performance. From what I can tell from looking at the two performances, it looks like the violin section has a rotating rather than a fixed seating system. The concertmaster was the same for both performances. I also noticed that Rachmaninov wrote a very busy part for the First Chair flautist. He rarely had a break. And don’t miss the French Horn section at 25.32 in the video. Our favourite movement was the Presto. And with Rachmaninov’s writing he had the string section sounding like a “machine” beginning at 22.56 in the video (and watch the heads and facial expressions of the violinists in that part).
As with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the one problem I had with the Boston University Symphonic Chorus was their soprano section. From what I’ve read about BU, they consider themselves to be a “solo school.” (Translation: Producing soloists. Does that mean opera soloists?). But even with soloists there are times where a soloist needs to or is supposed to blend with other voices and turn off that godawful, heavy, wobbling vibrato. Ugh. Can’t they do that? With the soprano section, what happened to the concept of sounding like one voice, or perfect intonation in good choral singing? A section (such as the soprano section) cannot sound like one voice when various choristers use or cannot turn off heavy, fluttery vibrato. With the human voice instrument too much vibrato is a major turnoff, at least to me and others I’ve talked with. I expect to hear heavy vibrato in opera and with an Opera Chorus, but neither of the works being performed by the Boston University Symphonic Chorus in these video below are opera (one’s a choral symphony and the other is an oratorio). I was wondering if the soprano section of the Boston University Symphonic Chorus (BUSC) were trying to emulate the rough-sounding, non-smooth-sounding, non-refined-sounding fluttery soprano section of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus? Who would want to emulate them?
Regarding vocal/choral vibrato from Vocal Technique Instructor, Karyn O’Connor:
“There are situations in which vibrato is an undesirable effect. In choral work, vibrancy rates among individual choir members may differ either slightly or enormously, and vibratos that aren’t synchronized can destroy the quality of a soft, unison passage. Wide-swinging vibratos that aren’t squarely on pitch in one singer can throw off the pitch of other singers standing next to them in the group. Most choir directors make the decision to have everyone sing in a ‘straight tone’ to avoid such inconsistencies in the overall sound of the choir. A straight tone can help singers in a large group blend more easily with each other. Therefore, tempering how much vibrato a singer uses or has, if any at all, is a valuable skill in an ensemble situation.” [Source: Singwise: An Information Based Resource For Singers By Vocal Technique Instructor, Karyn O’Connor].
When they were founded back in 1970 by John Oliver to be the Official Chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, I liked the Tanglewood Festival Chorus very much. But since then, either they have changed or I’ve changed, or both. I do have a very different “ear” now for listening to choral music and Orchestra Choruses than I did back then because of my own Orchestra Chorus experience (see bottom of the page) and from listening very closely to performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus under Founder/Director Margaret Hillis, as well as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus under Founder/Director Robert Shaw and other national and international Orchestra Choruses and choral ensembles. Have they (Tanglewood Festival Chorus) been doing too much opera repertoire over the years or something? I don’t know, but I don’t enjoy them now. And they don’t sound like the same Chorus to me as they did in their early recordings (such as in the Berlioz Damnation of Faust, for example). I hadn’t heard them in years until a small group of them sang for senator Edward Kennedy’s funeral. I vaguely remember briefly watching/hearing them in that video on
YouGoogleTube and I thought: That’s Tanglewood? What’s happened to them? I listened for a bit but had to turn it off. I couldn’t listen to it. I thought: I don’t remember Tanglewood sounding like that when they were founded back in 1970. I heard wobbling, fluttering vibrato in the sopranos, and in that church space where the funeral was held it did not sound good at all. They sounded more like an amateur church choir of untrained women’s voices – wobbling. They may have sounded better if they had used the entire TFC. Then a small group of the TFC sang for another funeral, Thomas Menino’s Funeral this year – 2014 and you can hear the sopranos wobbling/fluttering in that video. Does that sound like an Orchestra Chorus to you, or members of? Does that sound like members of the “Official Chorus of the BSO?” It doesn’t to me. I take it that the standards have been lowered, not that anyone would admit that. I saw another video of the TFC, which you can see here. In that video, members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus are singing a holiday piece complete with some bobbing up and down movements and other silly facial expressions/acting gestures from members of the Chorus. I found it to be childish and amateurish to tell you the truth. I was waiting for the June Taylor Dancers to come out at one point to do some “chorus line,” dancing for us (if anyone remembers them; I vaguely remember them so I looked them up and they were on The Jackie Gleason Show). I played that video for mi amigo and he said, “I wouldn’t expect what I saw and heard in that video from any ‘professional’ Orchestra Chorus.” Well I wouldn’t either. Neither of us could watch all of that video because we were so turned off by it. Making little childish facial expressions and gestures and “ump-pah-pah” bodily gestures while singing turns me off. Leave that to musical theatre/musicals.
The way I remember it when the TFC was founded, they were a very young Chorus. They looked like the New England Conservatory Chorus they replaced (I bet there’s a story there! Some chisme/gossip). Today, the TFC is an older Chorus and older voices can sound differently than younger voices. In the past couple months I heard TFC perform several choral works with the BSO and, again, they’re clearly not as good as they used to be, in my opinion. I heard things from the TFC that I would not expect to hear from the Official Chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra or any Orchestra Chorus for that matter. For those who don’t know, Orchestra Choruses are supposed to be the very best around to match the orchestra they serve as the resident/permanent Chorus for. So recently when listening to TFC, once again, I thought: What’s happened to them? I don’t think I will be asking that again. I can list a few examples of what I heard: I heard the tenor voices cracking/breaking in one part of Beethoven’s Ninth (I’ve never heard that from any other Orchestra Chorus), I heard shrill/screaming/fluttering-wobbling sounds coming from their soprano section in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“The Resurrection”) as well as Beethoven’s Ninth on the highest notes of both works. The sopranos sounded like they were cackling/screaming on some of the highest notes in the Beethoven. The entire TFC sounded like they were struggling some at the very loud choral ending of the Mahler. Someone may say, “you’re nitpicking.” I’m telling you what I heard from listening objectively and without any partiality, and I see no need for anyone to make apologies for an Orchestra Chorus or rush to their defence. Tell it like it is. These things are not what one expects from a well-prepared, highly-trained Orchestra Chorus. In some of their performances I heard consonants that were not together, as if John Oliver said: “oh that’s close enough.” In Beethoven’s Ninth, I heard final “t’s” that were splat; that were not together in one place on the word “zelt”. That should have been drilled/set in rehearsal (“Chorus, the ‘t’ of zelt goes on the _____ beat. Mark that in your scores in red.”) Upon reflection, maybe that’s the problem. They didn’t use their scores and sang “from memory” and some couldn’t remember where the “t” of zelt was supposed to be? Also, apparently it’s tradition that every Summer on the last day of the Tanglewood Music Festival—which is a little over 2 hours west of Boston on the Tanglewood estate in Stockbridge and Lenox MA—Beethoven’s Ninth is dragged out every season and performed by the BSO/TFC. (A brief aside: Has anyone noticed that Beethoven’s Ninth is becoming as over-performed as Handel’s Messiah and yet they call the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto “a war horse!”). With TFC’s 20014 Beethoven’s Ninth performance, on the last page or so of the choral score—the very fast section at the end; I don’t have the score in front of me—is where I heard what I would call “choral screaming” especially from that soprano section again on the notes in the top of their register. I played it for mi amigo and he said, “the sopranos sound like they’re screaming; they’re not musical.” I thought the same. At the end of the performance the audience predictably applauded wildly, as expected for Beethoven’s Ninth. Apparently they like screaming there at Tanglewood, or they can’t tell the difference between singing and screaming, no?
In TFC’s performance of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem, the tenor section of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was the best section (and at times they were the loudest section which was an interesting effect), followed by the basses. But unfortunately it went downhill from there on with the altos and soprano sections coming in as the worst. I do not like the sound of the soprano section of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. They don’t have a refined sound. I can’t recall ever hearing the sound that they have before. It’s a very unique sound, and not in a positive way. They don’t have a smooth, polished sound. They have this rough sound, this fluttery sound, which was especially noticeable in Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem, “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place.” They were fluttering all through that. Ugh. It was hard to listen to because of the soprano section. jesus! Who likes that sound? Overall, the soprano section is the worst section of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which is odd, because from my choral experience the soprano section was usually the best with a very smooth, polished sound. I guess one way to describe them is that they sound like they’re trying to be the soprano section of an Opera Chorus (perhaps) than that of a Symphony/Orchestra Chorus, and they’re supposed to be the latter. It’s as if someone is not clear on the concept that they are an Orchestra Chorus.
The problem with the soprano section of the Boston University Symphonic Chorus is that they also have too much fluttering vibrato especially in their upper register. I’m beginning to wonder if this a Boston thing, or what? I don’t understand it. I noticed no vibrato from BUSC’s soprano section when they were singing quietly and lower in their register. Their fluttery vibrato was especially noticeable in Elijah in the chorus, “Holy, Holy, Holy is god the lord,” which begins (at 1.49.59 in the video) with the semi-Chorus and the full Chorus answers and that pattern continues for the rest of that particular chorus. But when the men came in with, “Go, Return Upon thy Way,” the men sounded good and without vibrato. So what’s with the heavy fluttery vibrato in the sopranos (it was especially noticeable in the first two rows or so of the semi-Chorus)? Fortunately, there was less vibrato in the Rachmaninov, but I still heard some in the sopranos. Does Dra Jones like that fluttery vibrato sound of the sopranos? If so, that’s very curious because the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus doesn’t sound like that at all. No section of the ASOC sounded like that under Robert Shaw and I’ve never cringed listening to the ASOC, so I find it curious that Dra Jones allows excessive vibrato/fluttering or likes it. How could anyone like it unless one is heavily into opera, which I’m not? And again, they weren’t singing opera. They were singing an oratorio and that vibrato sounded awful. As is the case with TFC’s soprano section, they sounded like your average, untrained women in an amateurish church choir with their wobbling voices, and I suspect that’s not how the BUSC soprano section wants to sound.
An oratorio is not opera so the Chorus for an oratorio should not sound like an Opera Chorus. It should sound like a Symphony/Orchestra Chorus. That’s one reason why there are two different types of choruses. One of the indicators of a superb Chorus is to be able to sing beautifully softly/quietly and Boston University Symphonic Chorus does that.
With BU’s performance of Elijah, at times I could have used more diction and more spitting of the consonants so that the consonants reach the last row in the hall as we were trained to do (especially in the University of Maryland Chorus, known for their diction). On occasion I thought I heard some US r’s (r’s as pronounced in US-English, as opposed to The Queen’s English). I know I did from the bass soloist which I thought was questionable. For those who don’t know what that refers to: in well-trained choral singing if you have the word “Lord,” for example, it’s sung as “Lawd.” No US “r’s.” That US “r” twang sounds hideous and untrained. Mi amigo says it sounds hick. Yeah, you could say that too. I could have used more pipe organ. He was playing but I couldn’t hear it—except on one chord that’s usually heard in Elijah—and they have a recently renovated pipe organ in Symphony Hall. I was wondering how the semi-Chorus was chosen. Are they considered the best voices in the BUSC or are they part of another Chorus in the School of Music (such as the Chamber Chorus, the Concert Chorus, the Women’s Chorale, or the Boston University Singers)? The semi-Chorus consisted of the first two rows of the Symphonic Chorus closest to the orchestra.
In Elijah, my favourite soloists were the tenor and the alto. The soprano soloist for the Rachmaninov had heavy vibrato. I could hear the pitch in my ear that she was supposed to be singing but due to her vibrato she was fluttering back and forth on at least two pitches. That’s the negative thing about vocal vibrato: The pitch/note that is indicated in the score is contaminated or clouded by other notes because of vibrato (I hope you know what I mean by that), whereas when one is singing with no vibrato (or with a straight tone) the pitch/note is purer and there is no doubt as to the note being sung, as one would hear the note played on a piano.
In the classical tradition, I’ve never understood why it seems to be a requirement that opera soloists/singers be dragged in as soloists for performances that are not opera. Why have heavy vibrato opera soloists for an oratorio when fortunately the Chorus for the performance does not sing with vibrato? Why can’t the soloists come from the Chorus? Some people would answer that by saying: “Because no one will come to hear the performance. You have to drag in big-named opera stars as bait to get the sheeple to come.” Really? And this seems to be an international standard. For example, I recently watched a performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s’ A Sea Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and BBC Proms Youth Chorus. The Symphony Chorus and the Youth Chorus were superb. Excellent diction. (I even heard the “f” of “following” in the text). No vibrato at all in the Chorus, including the refined, smooth-sounding soprano section. The rough-sounding, fluttery soprano section of Tanglewood Festival Chorus might want to watch that video as they could certainly learn from them. But the two soloists sang with vibrato, especially the soprano. For me, she was a bit much to listen too and also watch because of her theatrics. It was almost as if she thought she were in a play.
Shouldn’t the soloists come from the Chorus?
Chorus = no vibrato.
Soloists = no vibrato.
How difficult is that to arrange or to understand?
I’m also glad that the Boston University Symphonic Chorus uses their choral scores. They don’t look like a bank of robots regurgitating the score on cue like the Tanglewood Festival Chorus look. I read what John Oliver (TFC’s Founder and Director) had to say about their “from memory” routine:
“Memorization is not a trick. It internalizes the music for you; it makes the music, somehow, a part of your own physical being. And you can express so much more like that. If you don’t see a singer’s face and you don’t see the posture of a singer, the address of a singer to the audience, you’re really not getting what a singer can deliver in music and what composers expected the singers to deliver.”
Ludicrous! I wonder how long it took him to come up with that? I read that paragraph to mi amigo and he said: That sounds like gobbledygook. Why do some people come up this “philosophical” nonsense and try to pass it off to unthinking people who unfortunately don’t posses critical thinking skills? Such people would respond to hearing that quote by saying, “Oh good, that sounds real good. Yeah that makes sense.” But fortunately, some people possess critical thinking skills and they would respond to that BS by saying: Well, I had no trouble seeing the faces or the posture of the BUSC choristers or the soloists using their scores. Is Oliver saying that composers in general expected singers to perform “from memory?” Really? I’ve never heard that before. Where did he get that? So when soloists represented by international artist agents are contracted for performances and use their scores, no matter how beautiful their performance they are not “delivering what the composer expected?” I think that will be noticias/news to them.
It’s Ludicrous! Although I suspect some gullible people fall for it.
As for performing “from memory,” Tanglewood Festival Chorus stands there with arms down all staring straight ahead at the conductor and showing little emotional involvement in what they’re singing (no body movements at all). They look like a wall/bank of statues.
Whereas Boston University’s Symphonic Chorus look like they’re involved in their music they’re performing, some move around a bit, some move their scores slightly in keeping with the tempo which I like to see as they’re getting into their music, and they are more musical, in my opinion.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra always use their scores/orchestral parts so why shouldn’t the Tanglewood Festival Chorus use their choral scores? Is the TFC trying to appear to better than the BSO musicians or better than another Chorus by singing “from memory?” There’s no sense to be made from that “performing from memory” nonsense—with its double-standards—of the classical music tradition where it’s perfectly acceptable (and expected) for some musicians to use their scores when performing but not others, and also depending upon what it is they’re playing and the setting. The double-standard is ridiculous and hypocritical. Does one know the score better when performing “from memory?” No, not necessarily. With some artists performing “from memory” can make them less comfortable and more nervous which can cause mistakes and memory lapses. With TFC, it looks like one is trying to impress somebody. It looks pretentious. I’ve seen some other choruses perform “from memory” on the odd occasion and to me they all pretty much look the same. It doesn’t matter which Chorus it is: A motionless bank of robots/statues. Fortunately, none of the Orchestra Choruses I had the privilege of performing with sang “from memory.” We used our scores.
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus performed The Bells last month in Symphony Hall. I listened to their performance On Demand, and I still heard their screechy (especially on the highest notes in the soprano section), non-refined, rough, fluttery soprano sound. For The Bells, the TFC had a rather bright sound. A bright sound is not Russian. The Russian choral sound is a very dark sound, especially in the basses. I did hear some “Russian bass” sound in the Presto movement, but I noticed that the entire Chorus had a bright sound especially in the first movement. It didn’t sound “Russian” at all. I thought that the Boston University Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Chorus (with a darker choral sound) performed the The Bells better than the TFC and the BSO. The playing from both orchestras was excellent but I preferred BU’s superb performance.
Overall, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus seems to be “hit and miss.” Some performances are better than others. I’ve already spent too much time on them so I didn’t bother to check their schedule to see how many choral works they perform each season in Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood. I was wondering: Do they perform too many choral works a season and don’t have the time to be thoroughly prepared for each performance? Or is John Oliver accepting anybody he can get these days—their soprano section certainly sounds like that’s the case—as long as they’re a fairly good sight-reader? They (TFC) need to take off some time and work on refining that godawful soprano section, I can tell you that! They rely on screeching, shrill and a bright sound (when singing loudly). The Boston University Symphonic Chorus relies on power, precision and a darker tone. They sound like a more powerful Chorus even though they are not quite as large as the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.
I was talking with mi amigo while writing this article and he said: “Perhaps that’s the problem with an orchestra having their own Chorus. The Chorus and the Chorus Director know they will be used/performing with that orchestra regardless of how they sound (mistakes, blemishes, screaming/shrill/fluttering/cackling/unrefined-sounding sopranos and all!). They have no competition when they are “the official Chorus,” so the level of choral excellence doesn’t necessarily have to remain high.” Yes, perhaps. But then there’s the possibility of an orchestra disbanding their own Chorus. That happened with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. They no longer have a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Chorus, and one reason given for disbanding was that their Symphony Chorus wasn’t that good. I never heard them. So after the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra disband their own Chorus, they invited the stellar University of Maryland Chorus to perform with them when they performed a choral work, until The Maryland Chorus was “retired”/liquidated by the University of Maryland at College Park about five years ago. These days, Baltimore SO invite the Baltimore Choral Arts Society on occasion as well as the University of Maryland Concert Choir, which is an all-student/music majors Chorus and which seems to have replaced the “retired” University of Maryland Chorus. But I doubt that the Boston Symphony Orchestra has any intention of disbanding their Tanglewood Festival Chorus, no matter how they sound, which reflects on the orchestra. Doesn’t the BSO notice how the TFC sounds, and especially that soprano section? Ugh. Or have they gotten used to it? I don’t know how one could get used to that. They make me cringe whenever I hear them.
We’ve very much enjoyed both The Bells and Elijah from BU, and felicitaciones to the Boston University Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Chorus. They should be very pleased with their performances.
Regarding their other performances: We’ve wanted to watch BU’s other performances but on our systems we can’t get the Vimeo videos to play smoothly, no matter what we do. Even though I don’t like GoogleTube—because parasitic and predatory Google has absolutely ruined the former YouTube particularly with all the (obnoxious) ads embedded in videos—the BUSO and BUSC should have kept all their videos on GoogleTube. I don’t watch any of the ads on GoogleTube. I can’t stand ads. I minimise the video and bring it back up when I think the ad has played. And if I accidentally see what’s being advertised, I make a mental note: Don’t buy that.
If I had a choice to go hear the Tanglewood Festival Chorus or BUSC, I would choose Boston University’s Symphonic Chorus. Even with fluttery vibrato, to me vibrato sounds better with the younger voices of the BUSC.
Enjoy these two performances by them in the videos below. Chau.—el barrio rosa
I made reference to this superb performance in the article (Ralph Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony, performed by the BBC Symphony Chorus, the BBC Proms Youth Choir and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo).
I didn’t mention this piece in the article, but thought you might enjoy it. I’ve watched this many times and have thoroughly enjoyed both the Orchestra and Chorus. It’s a splendid performance of Toward the Unknown Region also by Ralph Vaughan William with the National Youth Orchestra and Chorus of Britain, Codetta and the Irish Youth Chamber Choir. This performance reminds me of the first performance I heard of this work years ago by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in the UK.
[My choral background: I had the opportunity and privilege of performing in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall as a member of the Choral Arts Society of Washington (Norman Scribner, Founder and Chorus Director), the Oratorio Society of Washington, now called The Washington Chorus (Robert Shafer, Chorus Director), the University of Maryland Chorus (Dr Paul Traver, Founder and Chorus Director) with the National Symphony Orchestra and guest national and international orchestras, and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus (Margaret Hillis and Vance George, Chorus Directors) in Davies Symphony Hall.]